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Is Washington Nationals' reliever Blake Treinen ready to take the next step?

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Washington Nationals' skipper Matt Williams was impressed with Blake Treinen last Spring, and with the way the right-hander handled himself last season in a variety of roles. Will Treinen start in the Nationals' bullpen or start in Syracuse?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

"It's a blessing or a curse," Blake Treinen told reporters this winter when asked about enjoying success in the different roles he was asked to fill last season.

Washington's 26-year-old right-hander made seven starts for the Nationals last season and eight appearances out of the bullpen in the majors.

With the Nats' Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse, Treinen was strictly a starter, going (8-2) in 16 starts, with a 3.35 ERA, a 3.31 FIP, 20 walks (2.23 BB/9) and 64 Ks (7.14 K/9) in 80 ⅔ IP.

"His stuff plays. His stuff plays at any point later in the game. It's a bowling ball at 97 [mph]. So that's all good." - Matt Williams on Blake Treinen last Spring

In the majors, the former Oakland A's draft pick acquired along with Ian Krol and A.J. Cole in the three-team trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle in 2013, put up a 3.00 ERA, a 3.60 FIP, 11 walks (2.75 BB/9) and 16 Ks (4.00 K/9) in 36 IP as a starter, with a 1.23 ERA, a 1.84 FIP, two walks (1.23 BB/9) and 14 Ks (8.59 K/9) in 14 ⅔ IP as a reliever.

He was preparing as a starter again this winter, he explained this past December, though there was plenty of chatter about the sinker-balling righty potentially ending up back in the Nationals' bullpen.

"Still training as a starter," he said. "I don't really know exactly what they want to do this year. As far as I know last year, my main role [was] as a starter. So I'm going to go in as a starter and just prepare to be stretched out."

"He has to train that way," manager Matt Williams said when he too spoke to reporters earlier this winter.

"He has to train that way because we don't know if, in fact -- take for example last year Doug [Fister] not being ready for Opening Day. We have to make sure that Blake's training to be a starter and if he ends up being in the bullpen for some reason, then it's an easier transition as opposed to training as a reliever and trying to start."

"Blake's training to be a starter and if he ends up being in the bullpen for some reason, then it's an easier transition as opposed to training as a reliever and trying to start." -Matt Williams on Blake Treinen, December 2014

In his 50 ⅔ IP for the Nationals last season, Treinen featured a sinker (396 pitches) that averaged 94.4 mph and got up to 98.6 mph, which Williams described previously as a "bowling ball", a fastball (181 pitches) that averaged 95.1 mph, a mid-80s slider (131 pitches), a two-seam fastball (92.5 mph) and change (85.7 mph) he threw 13 times each and a cut fastball he threw six times.

The development of his secondary pitches was a topic of discussion from the start last season.

"He's working on his secondary pitches, of course," Williams said last Spring.

"Epecially his breaking ball, he's working on. But as a pitcher he's very young. He's still feeling his way through that, but it's electric stuff. It's out of the hand really nice."

Williams said Tuesday that he saw signs of progress for Treinen along the way last summer.

"We saw that towards the end of last year, where the slider started to develop," Williams explained. 

"He understands that given the experience that he had last year in the big leagues, that it's going to take more than the sinker to get people out..." - Matt Williams on Blake Treinen, February 2015

"He threw a lot of changeups later in the season where he felt confident with it. And he was able to throw the changeup that would act just like his fastball, but 6-7 miles an hour slower. So he's gotten more confident in that regard. He understands that given the experience that he had last year in the big leagues, that it's going to take more than the sinker to get people out on a consistent basis."

"But, boy, if we look at his season last year, it was pretty phenomenal," the second-year skipper said.

"It was really good for what we asked him to do. He was the chameleon, right? So we asked him to go one inning, we asked him to go three innings, we asked him to come back and start and go five innings and he handled everything extremely well. That's not easy to do, because you're training one way and then you're asked by the manager to do something else. He's a man. And he competes and he's got a great attitude. He's willing to walk out there and do any job we ask him to do.

"The key for him for me is to get more confident with the breaking ball, more confident with the changeup and not be afraid to go ahead and throw it. We saw that at the end of last year, he's not afraid to do that, so I think he's taken that step and he'll progress from there."

Williams described him as a "young" pitcher last summer, in terms of development, but Treinen will turn 27 in June, and the Nats' second-year skipper thinks the righty is ready to contribute again this season.

"He's not 22," Williams said today. "He's had some experience too, albeit with another organization, albeit at the minor league level, but he's not just learning the ropes, at this point he's ready to take that next step.

"So, like I said, we were completely confident last year calling him to the big leagues to start and bringing him out of the bullpen to throw one inning or three innings, and completely confident in him doing that."

Will he earn a spot in the major league bullpen this Spring? Will he go down Triple-A and stay stretched out as a starter?

Did the Max Scherzer signing, and the rumored move of Tanner Roark to the bullpen make it more likely he'll start the year as starting depth?

Where do you think Treinen starts the season? Where do you think he ends up?